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Britain passes sweeping new online safety law

Written by Adam Satariano

Britain passed a sweeping law Tuesday to regulate online content, introducing age-verification requirements for pornography sites and other rules to reduce hate speech, harassment and other illicit material.

The Online Safety Bill, which also applies to terrorist propaganda, online fraud and child safety, is one of the most far-reaching attempts by a Western democracy to regulate online speech.

The British law goes further than efforts elsewhere to regulate online content, forcing companies to proactively screen for objectionable material and to judge whether it is illegal, rather than requiring them to act only after being alerted to illicit content, according to Graham Smith, a London lawyer focused on internet law.

“The Online Safety Bill is a game-changing piece of legislation,” Michelle Donelan, the British secretary of technology, said in a statement. “This government is taking an enormous step forward in our mission to make the U.K. the safest place in the world to be online.”

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British political figures have been under pressure to pass the new policy as concerns grew about the mental health effects of internet and social media use among young people.

Under the new law, content aimed at children that promotes suicide, self-harm and eating disorders must be restricted. Pornography companies, social media platforms and other services will be required to introduce age-verification measures, a shift that some groups have said will harm the availability of information online and undercut privacy.

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TikTok, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram will also be required to introduce features that allow users to choose to encounter lower amounts of harmful content, such as eating disorders, self-harm, racism, misogyny or antisemitism.

“At its heart, the bill contains a simple idea: that providers should consider the foreseeable risks to which their services give rise and seek to mitigate — like many other industries already do,” said Lorna Woods, a professor of internet law at the University of Essex, who helped draft the law.

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Companies that do not comply will face fines of up to 18 million pounds (about $22.3 million).

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